Democratic candidates face hard choices as 2020 field winnows

The Democratic presidential field is facing its first real winnowing as more than half a dozen candidates confront the increasingly real possibility that they could be left out of the next primary debate.

The fierce competition for money, air time and polling support is taking its toll on the record field of contenders.

In little more than a week’s time, three candidates — former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats race to squash Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill Biden addresses Coloradans after wildfires: 'Incredible courage and resolve' Equilibrium/Sustainability — Mars may start 'terraforming itself' MORE, Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWhat if politicians were required to tell the truth? New Washington secretary of state orders staffers to be vaccinated Conservative Washington state lawmaker dies after positive COVID-19 test MORE and Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonUkraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia Gallego leads congressional delegation to Ukraine Bill seeks to aid families of Black WWII veterans deprived of GI benefits MORE (D-Mass.) — exited the race after acknowledging the all but insurmountable odds in their bids for the Democratic nomination.

A recent Morning Consult survey underscored the degree to which the candidates struggled to stand out in the crowded field. Despite months on the campaign trail, Inslee and Moulton were the two least-known candidates after the first two series of debates, with 78 percent of Democrats saying they had never heard of Moulton or didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion and 71 percent saying the same of Inslee. 

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At least eight other candidates have found themselves in similar predicaments, including former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyLobbying world Maryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 JD Vance raises more than million in second fundraising quarter for Ohio Senate bid Republicans must join us to give Capitol Police funding certainty  MORE (D-Ohio). They appear nowhere close to qualifying for the third primary debate in September and are faced with increasingly daunting polling and fundraising gaps between themselves and the field’s top-tier contenders.

“I think you’ll start to see resources dry up for some. I think you’ll see support and enthusiasm diminish and dry up for some. And that’s going to force them to make some decisions,” Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, said.

Pollsters say the massive field of contenders has had a freezing effect on voters, many of whom are tuning in for the first time and feel overwhelmed by the number of options as the race heads into the fall. 

Some Democrats are eager for the field to shrink, believing that it’s past time for focus to fall on those considered to be top contenders — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion The Fed has a clear mandate to mitigate climate risks Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion Filibuster becomes new litmus test for Democrats Gallego says he's been approached about challenging Sinema MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenArizona Democratic Party executive board censures Sinema Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBiden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' Tlaib blasts Biden judicial nominee whose firm sued environmental lawyer These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Airlines suspend US flights in response to 5G deployment AT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports MORE.

“It’s healthy for it to dwindle at this point,” Seawright said. “If we continue to bloody ourselves up and drag this out, I think we’ll do ourselves a huge disservice.” 

Hickenlooper has already launched a new campaign for the Senate, and Inslee will seek reelection to a third term as governor. Their early exits from the presidential field could ramp up pressure on some of the other low-polling contenders to follow suit. 

“Hickenlooper and Inslee had to get out because they had other races to run and win,” said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative who has endorsed Harris in the primary contest.

Democrats badly want to take over the Senate, and at least two long-shot presidential contenders — Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockDark money group spent 0M on voter turnout in 2020 In Montana, a knock-down redistricting fight over a single line 65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — are viewed as top tier Senate candidates in their states with potential to beat the GOP incumbents.

But it’s possible that the massive field of contenders and the chaotic nature of the race could keep many long shots in, with the hope that anything could happen for those left standing when votes are cast.

“It’s an odd year, unlike any I’ve seen in my political life,” said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, whose upstart campaign was one of the biggest surprises of the 2004 Democratic primary.

“It’s way too early to tell who might win,” Dean continued. “We might be waiting until the Iowa caucuses for the apple cart to be upset, so my advice to candidates, even if you don’t make the next debate, so what? Even if you finish fourth in Iowa, you could still punch your ticket in South Carolina or Nevada. You’ve got a shot, and there’s an awfully long way to go.”

Some Democrats are skeptical that the Democratic field is on the cusp of truly narrowing. Sellers said that it would take one of the race’s higher-profile contenders — O’Rourke or Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTlaib blasts Biden judicial nominee whose firm sued environmental lawyer The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India MORE (D-N.Y.), for example — dropping out to signal a real winnowing. 

“You have individuals who were contenders to be president of the United States when they announced –  the Gillibrands of the world, the Betos of the world. Until they decide to get out, it’s not a real winnowing,” Sellers said.

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Only 10 to 12 Democrats will likely qualify for the September debate. But at least eight others have little chance of making it: Bullock; Delaney; Ryan; Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Overnight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs MORE (D-Colo.); New York City Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioHochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign De Blasio says he won't run for New York governor Watershed moment in NYC: New law allows noncitizens to vote MORE; author Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson says difference between two political parties is 'performative' Marianne Williamson: Steven Donziger sentencing is meant to have a 'chilling effect' on environmentalists Marianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' MORE; Miramar, Fla. Mayor Wayne MessamWayne Martin MessamKey moments in the 2020 Democratic presidential race so far Wayne Messam suspends Democratic presidential campaign 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the November forum MORE; and former Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

But some of those who don’t make the stage could still qualify for the fourth debate in October, likely keeping many candidates in the race for at least a few more months.

Two other candidates — billionaire philanthropist Tom SteyerTom SteyerYouth voting organization launches M registration effort in key battlegrounds Overnight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline MORE and Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii) — are on the verge of qualifying for the September debate but still need to meet the Democratic National Committee’s requirement that candidates register at least 2 percent in four approved polls to secure their spots on stage.

Missing out on the next primary debate could come at a cost. Televised debates offer candidates the chance to pitch themselves in front of a national audience, and several contenders have said that they saw groundswells of support after appearing on the debate stage.

"If your campaign hasn't qualified for the third, you're likely not getting a lot of national coverage already," said Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic consultant and the founder of the National Democratic Training Committee. "So now you're missing out on the one chance to have national coverage, to have Democrat primary voters listening and seeing you on their TV screens."

Despite the recent exits from the race and the looming debate qualifying deadline, some candidates insist that they will keep going. 

Delaney, who has been running for the Democratic nomination for over two years but whose candidacy has struggled to gain traction, told Boston public radio station WGBH on Thursday that he believes his odds will improve as the field narrows.

“I’m going to be in the race. I’m staying in the race,” he said. “The field gets smaller, the [pool of] interested Democrats gets larger, and they become kind of a more moderate thing, and that’s where I think all the work we’ve done is going to start paying off.”